No, parliament should not move out of London while they rebuild the Palace of Westminster

Falling down: the Palace of Westminster. Image: Getty.

Finally, MPs have bitten the bullet and voted to move out of the crumbling Palace of Westminster while the dilapidated building is restored. And almost as soon as the vote was passed, the inevitable calls for parliament to relocate out of London kicked off again.

Serious thinkers have thrown their weight behind the campaign in publications including the Guardian and Economist, arguing that moving MPs and Lords to another city, or even cities, while the Palace is rebuilt would reconnect our despised politicians with the people.

But it’s a nonsensical – and cripplingly expensive – idea.

First and foremost, parliament is not just 650 MPs and 800-odd peers. It’s their thousands of staffers, and tens of thousands of civil servants up and down Whitehall and across Westminster.

For a government to function well, backbenchers, ministers, and civil servants need to work together – not just via email, but in actual physical contact in meetings. Moving the legislative part of our constitution hundreds of miles away from the executive branch would be the equivalent of hurling an entire shed full of spanners into the complicated workings of government, and paying hundreds of millions for the privilege of gumming up the system.

Don’t just take it from me. A 2013 EU study of the only parliament mad enough to actually shift from city to city (its own) found that moving MEPs between Brussels and Strasbourg cost at least €103m a year.

And it’s not just civil servants who would be cut off from the MPs they’re supposed to work with. Businesses, the City, charities, lobbyists, regulators and more who are all based in and around central London would face endless train journeys up and down Britain.

Like it or not, London isn’t just the legislative capital of Britain: it’s also its political, cultural and economic capital. Pretty much anyone and any organisation which wants anything to do with government, policy and politics has set itself up in London – and they’re certainly not going to relocate to Hull or wherever for six years just because MPs feel guilty about spending billions rebuilding the palace they normally work in.

Not only would there be vast, unnecessary costs and inefficiencies in making civil servants, lobbyists, and businesses commute to and from a relocated parliament, there’s also the problem of getting parliament to and from everywhere else.

London is the hub of the UK rail network and has better access to the rest of the UK than anywhere else. For instance, it’s quicker to get to, say, Wrexham, from London by train than it is from Sheffield, even though the latter city – sometimes touted as a possible host for parliament – is 100 miles closer.


And that’s assuming we could even settle on Sheffield, or any other city, as the new home of parliament. The bitter squabble over who would reap the benefits of hosting MPs and peers for six years would itself take years and cost millions. There is no consensus over what the UK’s second city is, with the second largest by population, Birmingham, lagging behind places like Manchester when it comes to local government powers and economic dynamism. And then there are the other capitals, in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast: should they not be front of the queue instead?

Even if we did somehow manage to coalesce around a single candidate without embittering half of Britain or triggering a series of lengthy judicial reviews, finding a suitably large and yet secure building would also be a massive challenge.

When looked at dispassionately, the choice of to stay inside the Westminster security cordon – a stone’s throw from Whitehall, a short walk from the rest of the UK’s leading businesses and cultural hubs, and with the fastest and best access to the rest of the country by train – Is the obvious one.

Yes, we all want to rebalance the UK’s economy and boost the neglected cities that have not seen the success that London has. But, sadly, the ship has sailed when it comes to toppling London’s supremacy, or even challenging it, as Los Angeles or Washington can to New York’s.

We can and should relocate offices and parts of the national infrastructure outside London, like the DVLA in Swansea or BBC Sport in Salford. But parliament, and everything else in its orbit, is not something that can be parcelled out to the rest of the country like some runners-up prize.

It’s fair to say that moving MPs across the road to a temporary building in the former Department for Health, as the current plan suggests, is not very exciting. But sometimes, the right option, and by far the cheapest option, is the boring one.

Editor’s note: This is one side of the argument. Stay tuned, and we might just run the other, too...

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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